Posted by Alex Vernon on

I wish I’d left the recorder on… five interview mistakes I won’t make again

I recently produced some audio clips for Penny Brohn Cancer Care’s autumn fundraising appeal (I’m looking forward to sharing them when the appeal launches – my interviewee was amazing!).

This work got me thinking that, although I’ve been using audio for some time, I’m always learning new things about getting the best out of it.

So, to help anyone who’s keen to add audio to their story tool-box, I thought I’d share some of my mistakes – and my lessons.

#1 I wish I’d turned the air-con off.

Recently I interviewed Helen, who had hugely benefited from a mentoring project run by Volunteer Bristol. As we sat down in the meeting room, I heard the pesky, constant zmmmmmm of the room’s air conditioning.

I knew my recorder would pick it up, but I couldn’t find the controls to turn the air con off. No other rooms were available – and as we had some sensitive stuff to talk about, I didn’t want to make Helen more nervous by traipsing around finding an alternative venue.

As I’d suspected, when I listened back later, Helen’s eloquence and honesty were accompanied by the distinctive drone of the air con*. If only I’d taken a few minutes to source the controls and turn the damn thing off.

My lesson: I must beware background noise. Unless the sounds of a busy café or bustling street are going to add colour and context to my interview, I should find a venue that’s as peaceful as possible. I need to ditch the buzzing air con – and unplug the phones.

*I use Audacity for editing audio. If any Audacity pros reading this know how to tone down unwanted background noise, I’d love to hear from you.

#2 I wish I’d been more demanding – and less chronological.

I usually ask people to introduce themselves at the start of the interview. All I’m looking for is a straight “I’m Bob and I’m from Bath.”

Trouble is, at this stage of the interview, folks are still a little nervous. As a result, you’re likely to get “(Loud, sharp intake of breath) I’m Bob” or, worse, “Well I’m Bob,” or worse still, “Ummm, I’m Bob…” Such intros don’t make for easy editing later.

I often feel uncomfortable asking people to repeat themselves in order for me to get clean intros. But I shouldn’t feel like this. They’d understand.

My lesson: I could get away with being a little more demanding – and ask them to have another go. Alternatively, I should save the intros for the end of the interview. By then, my subject will have warmed up sufficiently for me to get my “I’m Bob” in one quick, painless take.

Always ask your dog to remove his collar before an interview (but shame on me for forgetting my bracelets).
Always ask your dog to remove his collar before an interview (but shame on me for forgetting my bracelets).

#3 I wish I’d stolen his watch.

If your interviewee is the wearer of bracelets / bangles / a watch and is even the tiniest bit animated, chances are you’ll hear the jangle of jewellery on jewellery or the clang of watch against table top when you listen back later. This could prove distracting.

My lesson: first, I must remove my own noisy wrist-wear. Then, sweetly but firmly, I must ask my interviewee to do the same.

#4 I wish I’d turned the recorder off.

I’ve been known to get so enthralled by my interviewee’s story that I turn on my recorder and forget about it. I’m left with a single, long, massive track that spans the whole interview. And it’s a real pain to process and edit later on.

My lesson: I must turn off my recorder between questions. That way, for each question I’ll have a new, bite-sized track that’s easy to process and edit. Plus it gives my interviewee a chance to slurp noisily on their tea between questions.

#5 I wish I’d left the recorder on.

Huh? No, I’m not going back on #4.

Even the most relaxed of interviewees will breathe a sigh of relief when I say, “Okey dokey, we’re all done, thank you so much” and switch off my recorder for the last time. And often, they’ll choose that moment to come out with a stonker of a sound bite like “My pleasure. I really would do anything for this charity. They saved my life.”


Attempts to hastily turn the recorder back on and ask them to repeat such a gem usually result in something stilted and lacking the natural, spontaneous warmth of what came before.

My lesson: I must avoid the off-switch until the last possible moment. Perhaps until after we’ve said goodbye and I’m en route to the loo.

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